· By Steffen Smith
Bust the Dust: Learn the Best Way to Clean Vinyl Records
Hey! It’s the Deaf Man, here to talk with you about how to clean vinyl records.
I know, I know. Everybody thinks they have the best way for cleaning dirty records. I always say if you want to start a fight at a record show, ask a couple of hardcore vinyl guys for some record cleaning tips. A riot will break out. Because everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody thinks their method works best. They've got the best record cleaning kit and they will absolutely bore you to tears explaining their incredibly detailed, anal-retentive process for cleaning records.
So, we’re not gonna go there. Instead, I’m going to share with you some record cleaning tips I’ve learned. I clean a ton of records every day — stuff that I’m listing on DeafManVinyl.com as well as records from my own collection that I'm getting ready to play. In particular, I want to share with you two absolutely critical steps I’ve learned for cleaning vinyl records — and keeping them clean. We're also going to take a look at what's in the best record cleaning kit.
But First ...
Before we start any discussion on the best way to clean vinyl records, we're gonna start with how NOT to clean your records. So, before we go any further, put away the alcohol, the Windex, the fancy record-cleaning solution ... whatever anyone has ever told you to clean a record with. If you don't "bust the dust" — if you don't get all the dust out of those grooves first — you're just going to be making mud when you add any type of liquid to the record surface. When it dries, that mud turns into stylus-killing concrete. So, my number-one record cleaning tip for you is NEVER start wet, ALWAYS start dry. Carry on.
Meet the Enemy
To understand how to clean vinyl records, you have to start by understanding the enemy. The enemy is dust. And the enemy is everywhere. Bits of paper fiber from the record sleeve. Stray bits of vinyl from the pressing process. Cat hair, carpet fibers, Roomba exhaust. Any of that stuff that comes between your needle and the groove is going to give you the Rice Crispies — that dirty vinyl snap, crackle and pop.
And if you’re not careful how you go about cleaning your dirty records, you’re going to be fighting a losing battle. Because the other enemy is static electricity.
Remember that demonstration your fifth grade science teacher did where you rubbed a balloon on your clothes a few times and then stuck it to the wall? Or, made your hair fly? That’s static electricity in action. A powerful force. Well, the same thing happens when you pull a vinyl record out of the jacket. The friction caused by simply removing the record sets all those protons and electrons into a frenzy. Same thing happens when you run a record cleaning brush around the disc a couple of times. It creates a static charge.
The heavier the vinyl, the more statically charged it becomes. And guess what? Vinyl is getting heavier. These days, heavyweight 180-gram vinyl is the new norm. So, the best way to clean a vinyl record is to start by acknowledging that your record is an electrostatically charged, particle-sucking dust magnet. You’re trying get the dust off a highly charged vinyl record that wants to suck up every dust particle in its vicinity. So, you need a method of cleaning dirty records that defeats those two enemies — dust and static
Yes, there are tricks you can use to neutralize the static charge. You can use an ionizer like a ZeroStat gun, but those run into some money. Things like a cork mat on your turntable help. You can even add a humidifier to a room to knock down some of the static. But that’s all kind of complicated. And most of us don’t like complicated.
Another One Bites the Dust
I'm not going to say this is absolutely the best way to clean a vinyl record ... but it's absolutely the best way I've found. And it starts with making a simple change to the way you hold your records when you’re cleaning them.
Here’s the deal: Most of us clean a record by holding it in our hand and running a record cleaning brush over it (or worse, blowing on it ... hello spit!). With the brush, we go around the record a couple of times and then sweep the dust off over the edge and out into space.
Here’s the maddening part: If you’re holding the record in your hand and sweeping dust over the edge, it immediately gets caught in the static vortex and jumps to the opposite side of the record. Trust me on this. You will be playing a very frustrating version of whack a mole as you flip from one side to the next and see the same pile that you’ve just swept off the other side.
Or, maybe you’re one of those people who likes to brush your vinyl down as it's spinning on the turntable … that statically charged turntable. When you do that, all the dust is swept onto the turntable surface, ready to jump onto the next unsuspecting, statically charged vinyl record that comes its way.
With all that static electricity holding everything tight, you have to apply some pressure with your record cleaning kit to get down into the grooves and get all that dust out of there. And you just can’t put enough pressure on a record when it’s balanced on your hand or sitting on your turntable.
Get on Your Back and Ride
So for those two reasons — the static whack-a-mole and the need to get deep into those grooves — the best way to clean a vinyl record is to start with it flat on its back on a statically neutral surface.
So, clean off a space and lay down a piece of clean, lint-free material. You can use a placemat or a microfiber towel. For a long time, I used a very nice linen napkin that I lifted off a cruise ship during a family vacation (apologies, Norwegian Joy). Or you could use one of the record cleaning mats we have in the store. These have a rubber backing to isolate the static charge and come in some cool patterns (The Who, AC/DC, KISS and the Grateful Dead).
Whatever you use, make sure it’s big enough to fit the record. Laying your record flat like this is going to control where that dust goes when you start cleaning dirty records. It’s also going to give you a stable base where you can apply the right amount of pressure to really clean those grooves.
What’s in Your Record Cleaning Kit?
I always start with a good-quality record cleaning brush. A carbon-fiber brush will help knock down the static. We carry Vinyl Styl products, and I really like their stuff. We never sell anything we don’t use ourselves, and I have road-tested their record cleaning kits quite a bit.
With your record lying flat, you’ll want to get the bristles down in the grooves, where they’ll dislodge the dust. So, several times around the disc, getting your carbon fiber brush down into the grooves. You’re not trying to completely clean the record. This is simply to loosen everything up and get it to the surface.
Then, when it’s time to sweep those particles off into space, you can hang the record ever so slightly off the edge of your surface and schweeep! When you are cleaning dirty records this way, there’s no exposed surface for all that dust to jump onto the other side like there would be if you were holding it in your hand. Then flip the record over and do it again, remembering to shake out your mat. It sounds ridiculously simple, but laying it flat like that is one of the best record cleaning tips I've found.
The Brush Off
Now, it’s time for your record cleaning brush. This is going to collect all that dust that you brought to the surface with your carbon fiber brush. To keep things moving, I use two different brushes. A flat one and a rounded on. The idea is the same. But unlike with your first step with the carbon fiber brush, the record cleaning brush is going to actually carry the dust away.
Start with the flat brush, which will do a great job of digging down into the grooves. But it can only carry off so much dust. It will leave the rest in a nice line for you. You can brush some of that off with your carbon fiber brush. But what you really need to do is come back with a rounded brush.
I use a vintage DiscWasher. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, this was the go-to brush if were serious about cleaning vinyl records. If you can find a vintage Discwasher on eBay, grab it! With a rounded record cleaning brush, you add a little wrist action and as you rotate it upward, you collect all the remaining dust. You twist as you go, so there’s always a clean brush surface picking up the dust.
Remember what I said about pressure? Having everything flat as you’re cleaning records gives you the perfect angle to press down and really get to the dust. You might need to alternate between the carbon fiber brush and the record cleaning brush a couple of times if you’re bulldozering up a bunch of gunk as go around.
Just be sure clean the record cleaning brush before you go around again. I keep a toothbrush handy for that. Not a gnarly chewed up one, but a new one that I can use to brush out the pad a few times until it’s clean. A lot of record cleaning kits come with a small brush to do that, but I usually just toss them and use a toothbrush.
Do that flat brush/round brush routine until you see no more dust. With a really dirty record, I might have to go through that cycle two or three times. Just keep at it until you’re not bringing up any more dust. In my opinion, that is simply the best way to clean a vinyl record.
Now, You’re Ready to RockBefore you slap your clean record on the turntable, take a second to knock the dust off your turntable mat. I’ll take the mat up and shake it out every once in awhile and sometimes even give it a wash. But you can just as easily give it a quick brush. Just remember to do that regularly. Same thing with the surface of your turntable. If you’ve got a dust cover, great. But most of the vintage turntables I use don’t have the original cover, so I’ve got to be intentional about wiping the dust off.
At the same time, give your stylus a quick brush with a stylus brush. You should really be doing this every time you play a record. Just remember to brush from back to front. Your stylus is hanging off the cartridge on a thin strip of fiber or metal that is meant to flex up and down. It’s only supposed flex in one direction, and if you brush from front to back, you run the risk of bending the stylus out of whack. The Vinyl Styl stylus cleaning kits we carry come with some anti-static fluid you can use to get everything clean and dust-free.
So remember: If you want to know the best way to clean vinyl records, remember these three steps:
1) Start dry. Get the dust out before you use any type of record-cleaning solution.
2) Lay it flat. Lay your record flat on a clean surface so you can control the static electricity and at the same time be able to really get down in those grooves.
3) Brush it out. Use the 1-2-3 combination of carbon-fiber brush, a flat record cleaning brush and a rounded record cleaning brush to get the dust out.
And finally, when you’re done listening to that sweet, sweet clean record, don’t slip it back into a nasty old inner sleeve that’s loaded with dust. Treat your album to a fresh inner sleeve. You can get them literally for pennies. Or, you can step it up a notch and use an archival-quality sleeve with the anti-static coating.
Hopefully, you’ve learned some solid record cleaning tips and will be enjoying your records even more. You’ll find all kinds of record cleaning kits, sleeves and even those spiffy rock ‘n’ roll cleaning mats on deafmanvinyl.com. Of course, you can always email me at email@example.com if you want to talk records. Or if you have questions about cleaning and storing your vinyl, just leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you.
Until next time, keep ’em spinning!
PS — This is the transcript that goes with this video.